Torcaso v. Watkins

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Torcaso v. Watkins
Argued April 24, 1961
Decided June 19, 1961
Full case nameTorcaso v. Watkins, Clerk
Citations367 U.S. 488 (more)
81 S.Ct. 1680, 6 L. Ed. 2d 982
ArgumentOral argument
Case history
PriorJudgment for respondent, Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland; Judgment affirmed, Court of Appeals of Maryland, 223 Md. 49, 162 A. 2d 438 (1960)
SubsequentReversed and remanded
State governments cannot require a religious test for public office.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Earl Warren
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · Felix Frankfurter
William O. Douglas · Tom C. Clark
John M. Harlan II · William J. Brennan Jr.
Charles E. Whittaker · Potter Stewart
Case opinions
MajorityBlack, joined by Warren, Douglas, Clark, Brennan, Whittaker, Stewart
ConcurrenceFrankfurter (in the result, no opinion)
ConcurrenceHarlan (in the result, no opinion)
Laws applied
U.S. Constitution Amendments I, XIV

Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the court reaffirmed that the United States Constitution prohibits states and the federal government from requiring any kind of religious test for public office, in this specific case as a notary public.


In the early 1960s, the Governor of Maryland appointed Roy Torcaso (November 13, 1910 – June 9, 2007)[1] as a notary public. At the time, the Constitution of Maryland required "a declaration of belief in the existence of God" for a person to hold "any office of profit or trust in this State".[2]

Torcaso, an atheist, refused to make such a statement, and his appointment was consequently revoked. Torcaso, believing his constitutional rights to freedom of religious expression had been infringed, filed suit in a Maryland Circuit Court. The Circuit Court rejected his claim, and the Maryland Court of Appeals held that the requirement in the Maryland Constitution for a declaration of belief in God as a qualification for office was self-executing[3] and did not require any implementing legislation to be enacted by the state legislature.

The Court of Appeals justified its decision thus:

The petitioner is not compelled to believe or disbelieve, under threat of punishment or other compulsion. True, unless he makes the declaration of belief, he cannot hold public office in Maryland, but he is not compelled to hold office.

Torcaso took the matter to the United States Supreme Court, where it was heard on April 24, 1961.


  States that have religious qualifications for public office written in their constitutions
  States that do not have religious qualifications for public office written in their constitutions

The Court unanimously found that Maryland's requirement for a person holding public office to state a belief in God violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.[4]

The Court had established in Everson v. Board of Education (1947):

The "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.

Writing for the Court, Justice Hugo Black recalled Everson v. Board of Education and explicitly linked Torcaso v. Watkins to its conclusions:

There is, and can be, no dispute about the purpose or effect of the Maryland Declaration of Rights requirement before us — it sets up a religious test which was designed to and, if valid, does bar every person who refuses to declare a belief in God from holding a public "office of profit or trust" in Maryland.


We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person "to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion." Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.

Rebuffing the judgment of the Maryland Court of Appeals, Justice Black added: "The fact, however, that a person is not compelled to hold public office cannot possibly be an excuse for barring him from office by state-imposed criteria forbidden by the Constitution."

The Court did not base its holding on the no religious test clause of Article VI. In Footnote 1 of the opinion, Justice Black wrote:

Appellant also claimed that the State's test oath requirement violates the provision of Art. VI of the Federal Constitution that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." Because we are reversing the judgment on other grounds, we find it unnecessary to consider appellant's contention that this provision applies to state as well as federal offices.

Secular humanism as a religion[edit]

Some religious groups have occasionally argued that, in Torcaso v. Watkins, the Supreme Court "found" secular humanism to be a religion. This assertion is based on a reference, by Justice Black in footnote number 11 of the Court's finding, to court cases where organized groups of self-identified humanists, or ethicists, meeting on a regular basis to share and celebrate their beliefs, have been granted religious-based tax exemptions.[5][citation needed] Religious groups such as those supporting causes such as teaching creationism in schools have seized upon Justice Black's use of the term "secular humanism" in his footnote as a "finding" that any secular or evolution-based activity is a religion under US law.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Adam Bernstein (June 21, 2007), "Roy Torcaso, 96; Defeated Md. in 1961 Religious Freedom Case", The Washington Post.
  2. ^ Constitution of Maryland, Article 37.
  3. ^ Lehman, Jeffrey; Phelps, Shirelle (2005). West's Encyclopedia of American Law, Vol. 9 (2 ed.). Detroit: Thomson/Gale. p. 91. ISBN 9780787663742.
  4. ^ "Torcaso v. Watkins". Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Georgetown University. Retrieved May 25, 2019.
  5. ^ Torcaso v. Watkins, Footnote 11
  6. ^ Matt Cherry; Molleen Matsumura (Winter 1997–1998), "10 Myths About Secular Humanism", Free Inquiry, vol. 18, no. 1, archived from the original on August 19, 2012; Is "Secular Humanism" a "Religion"?, Vine & Fig Tree, archived from the original on May 21, 2013, retrieved August 2, 2013. See also What is Secular Humanism?, Christian Answers Network, 1996, archived from the original on April 17, 2013.

Further reading[edit]

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